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New network breed: VLANs

3Com is trying to bust up LAN bottlenecks.

3Com (COMS) is trying to bust up LAN bottlenecks.

The company today expanded its set of network management software tools to address a relatively new breed of LAN known as "virtual" local area networks or VLANs.

VLAN technology groups users together on the basis of who works with whom, rather than who sits next to whom. In other words, workgroups are created by applying logic rather than just the floor plan. This means that users at a variety of different sites can access the network and receive information as if they were connected locally in a workgroup.

The idea is to help minimize network bottlenecks since information is broadcast only to users who need to see it rather than everyone on the fourth floor. VLAN technology is particularly useful for high-traffic networks that are susceptible to "broadcast storms" or complete network logjams.

One good use of a VLAN, for example, would be a human resources department in a far-flung corporation where various HR representatives sit in separate offices all over the country or all over the world.

As part of an evolving framework called "Transcend Virtual Networking," 3Com has included new tools to manage these virtual networks in the latest releases of its Transcend Enterprise Manager software for Windows and Unix. The new management capabilities span the entire 3Com line of switches and routers.

Adoption of VLANs has actually been slower than expected, partly because they require network switches to direct traffic to computers in different locations. This limits its effectiveness because many LAN environments are connected simply via local wiring and a file server rather than by hooking up to a networking hub. Not only that, but there are currently no VLAN interoperability standards, which means that a company who wants to implement virtual networks have to pick only one brand of switching equipment for the entire company.

Nonetheless, other companies such as Xylan, are already big proponents of VLAN technology and other networking players, including Bay Networks, Cisco Systems, and Cabletron Systems also have VLAN strategies in the works.

But analysts say that users are waiting for better management tools before VLANs move out of the nascent market stage.

3Com's Transcend Virtual Networking strategy is intended to help fill that gap. With the VLAN support, for example, an administrator can see all of the VLAN's on the network, see which ports on a router or switch are connected to which VLAN, and make changes to the user and device topology of a VLAN via simple point-and-click changes.

Separately, 3Com also announced the integration of TEM 4.1 for Unix and Hewlett-Packard's OpenView 4.1 for Unix. TEM 6.0 for Windows will also integrate with HP's OpenView for Windows 7.1.

Version 6.0 of TEM for Windows will ship this month priced at $3,495. Version 4.1 of the Unix product is available now for $9,495.